'Speechless' actor Micah Fowler breaking new ground for actors with cerebral palsy

LOS ANGELES -- ABC’S Speechless is one of the hottest shows on the network right now.

It’s centered around the Dimeo’s, a family of five whose lives revolved largely around JJ, a teenager with cerebral palsy both on and off the screen.

Actress Minnie Driver plays his mom, Maya.

“We are dealing with a topic that isn't addressed frequently in television and that's all willing and good,” Driver told Denver7’s Molly Hendrickson and Hanna Atkinson during a recent set visit. “But our first priority is to make people laugh.”

Driver’s fiercely protective Maya is balanced by a calmer, yet still eccentric, husband named Jimmy.

“It's funny without being tasteless, it's warm without being sentimental,” said John Ross Bowie who plays Jimmy Dimeo. “I think that's because the guy who created the show, Scott Silveri, he grew up in an environment with a brother who was non-verbal with cerebral palsy.”

“The whole thing is flavored by people who can come at this with real knowledge about what it is to be able bodied,” add Driver. “What it is to be disabled. That's what makes the show a little different.”

The breakout star on the show is newcomer Micah Fowler, who plays JJ.

You don’t have to spend long with Micah to see the impact he is having on the rest of the cast.

“Like all you have to do is just come and get to know us and we are just like anybody else,” Fowler said.

He gets help on the show from an aide named Kenneth, played by actor Cedric Yarbrough.

“America has always been aware, but we haven't seen someone with cerebral palsy, playing someone with cerebral palsy in quite a while,” Yarbrough said.

Statistics show less than 1% of characters on television have a disability, and 95% of those characters are played by able bodied actors.

“It reminds me of when I was a kid,” Yarbrough added.  “My mom would tell me, ‘oh wow, we saw a black person on TV. We saw James Brown on television.’  So I feel that way with this particular show.”

To make sure the show works and is accurate, the writes and the cast work very closely with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF). In fact, the CPF's CEO is usually on the set at least once a week, including the day Denver7 visited. 

"We need to have a world where we can have safe conversations about disabilities for people with disabilities and people who don't have disabilities," Richard Ellenson said. "The way to do that is with humor, once you laugh you can say things you can't say any other way."

“You can't force people to be more inclusive,” added Driver. “You can't force them to not be frightened, but you can teach them that it's alright and you can relax a little bit and not feel that we're not so separate.”
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Speechless airs Wednesdays at 7:30pm on Denver7. Watch this story on Denver7 at 10.

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